Biden backs reauthorisation of AGOA trade scheme

President Biden has strongly backed renewal of the AGOA scheme, which gives many sub-Saharan African countries preferential trade status with the US.


Image : Brendan Smialowski/AFP

As talks take place in Johannesburg between the United States and 35 sub-Saharan African countries on the future of the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), President Joe Biden has strongly endorsed the scheme.

In a statement released by the White House on 1 November, he says: “I strongly support reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act— a landmark, bipartisan law that has formed a bedrock for U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa for more than two decades. I encourage Congress to reauthorize AGOA in a timely fashion and to modernize this important Act for the economic opportunities of the coming decade.”

AGOA is a preferential trade programme enacted by the US Congress in 2000 that gives eligible sub-Saharan African countries quota and duty-free access for specified goods, including textile and apparel for some. It is currently due to expire in 2025.

According to a 2022 report by the Office of the United States Trade Representative, AGOA has remained “a core element of the United States’ trade relationship with sub-Saharan Africa” and has “spurred economic growth and created tens of thousands of jobs across the continent.” The 20-year-old Act is due to expire in 2025, but lawmakers in both Houses of Congress have signalled a willingness to renew it.

In his statement, the president notes that “AGOA is facilitating private-sector led economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa by increasing the competitiveness of African products”, and expresses his desire to deepen trade relations to realise Africa’s immense potential for the benefit of both Africa and America.

“I am committed to expeditiously working with Congress and our African partners to renew this law beyond 2025, in order to deepen trade relations between our countries, advance regional integration, and realize Africa’s immense economic potential for our mutual benefit.

“In so many ways, Africa is the future – and so when Africa succeeds, the whole world succeeds,” he concludes.

Uganda removed for human rights violations

Earlier this week, President Biden announced in a letter to Congress his intention to remove four African countries  – Uganda, Gabon, Niger and the Central African Republic (CAR) – from the scheme from 1 January 2024, citing their failure to “address United States concerns about their non-compliance with the AGOA eligibility criteria”.

According to US government figures cited by the BBC, Ugandan exports to the US were worth $174m last year, while Gabon, Niger and the CAR recorded US exports of $220m, $73m and $881,000 respectively.

Uganda is to be removed for what Biden describes as “gross violations of international human rights”. This follows the signing by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni on 30 May of the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023. Under this law, “aggravated homosexuality”,  defined as engaging in sexual relations with HIV-positive people, children or other vulnerable people of the same gender, is punishable by death, while “promoting” homosexuality can incur a 20-year prison sentence.

President Biden immediately condemned the passing of the law as a “tragic violation of universal rights” and called for its immediate repeal but President Museveni has steadfastly defended his signing of the act, stating at the beginning of June that “the signing is finished, nobody will move us.”

Later in the same month, Museveni declared that “homosexuals” in the US were already “interfering” with Uganda’s exports of textiles, and suggested that a ban on the import of secondhand clothing would more than make up for lost revenues.

“The money you have been squandering with the second-hand clothes, importing other people’s fabrics, is much more than what we are going to earn from the sales to the US,” he told an audience in Kampala.

Niger, Gabon and CAR also removed

Niger and Gabon are also removed for what the president describes as not having established or not making continued progress towards establishing the “protection of political pluralism and the rule of law”.

Both countries have experienced military takeovers this year. In Niger, democratically-elected President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown in July by a junta whose relations with the US and former colonial power France have been strained. In Gabon, the long rule of the Bongo family came to an end in August when military officers calling themselves the Committee for Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI) seized power.

The CAR is removed for what the president’s letter describes as “ gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and failure to establish or make progress towards “the protection of internationally recognized worker rights, the rule of law, and political pluralism.”

Other countries that have had their AGOA beneficiary status removed in recent years include Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, while others such as Zimbabwe have never been eligible. Mauritania is to be readmitted due to what the Office of the United States Trade Representative described as its government’s willingness “to work diligently with the United States to continue to make substantial and measurable progress on worker rights and eliminating forced labor across the country.”

In May, fears were raised that South Africa, the continent’s top exporter to the US, might run foul of AGOA, after allegations that Pretoria had supplied arms to Russia but diplomatic tensions later subsided.

The US president said in his letter to Congress that he will continue to assess whether the four countries slated for expulsion meet the eligibility criteria.

The president has also decided to reinstate Mauritania, which was removed from AGOA in 2019.

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Charles Dietz

Charles Dietz is a sub editor and journalist at African Business.